Let’s begin. Again.

I used to have a blog. It was called Dance Robot Dance. The idea was that I had a “music project” of the same name, and the blog was where I wrote about the things I made. I’d post tracks, ideas, pictures of gear, questions about sequencers, and the occasional interesting video or audio of others. Various forces combined to make this less interesting and more difficult, to the point where a few years ago, I just kinda stopped. The WordPress site became difficult to manage. Family life and $work$ got more complicated. I went long stretches without playing or recording music. And, seemingly innocuous but actually very important, web browsers deprecated RSS feeds around the same time social media took over the world.

Before, Dance Robot Dance would often get 100 unique views per day, and at times a dozen or more comments. Then, within a month or two of the RSS issue, that all stopped. I know I, for one, quit reading blogs, and I suspect many many others did too. Twitter and Facebook and Instagram satiated our needs. Why bother going here and going there, when the Great Algorithm just showed us what to read, what to listen to, and we could easily follow those leads?

Over a short amount of time, I found that I’d neglected to visit sites like Create Digital Music and Analog Industries for weeks and months at a time. In some ways, this was a good thing. I was getting more work done at the office, that’s for sure. And I found myself in bed reading books again, rather than Synthtopia.

Also, around the same, time I began riding bikes. A lot. So when I had a few hours to kill, I was retreating to the music room less and less, and heading out to. the trails more and more. I don’t care much about reading about bikes. I’d rather work on them and ride them. So that became the Hobby of Choice and making music took a long backseat.

The icing was on the cake when, in 2017, my son found some viruses in Dance Robot Dance’s WordPress installation, as well as my work website. We decided it was time to leave our web host, Laughing Squid, and he put together a server for our websites. Somehow in the migration, I lost the core of Dance Robot Dance. The entire SQL database is gone, with everything I wrote. The templates and WP files are on a hard drive, but the content is vanished. So, very frustrated, I just gave up. I pointed the DanceRobotDance URL to my Soundcloud page and moved on.

Recently, however, things have been clicking again. My kids are older and more independent. Work is steady and not overwhelming like it was in 2012-2017. I’ve been assembling a few guitars, weeding out the pedals, enjoying noise-making with the modular synth, playing around with my non-modular synths. And, importantly, I procured a new MIDI controller which I think is working out surprisingly well (my experience with MIDI controllers will be the subject of a rant at some point, I promise), and has made making sounds and recording them somewhat easier and less stupid. In the last several weeks I have found myself recording more, thinking more, making notes (the written kind) about making notes (the musical kind), and posting a few things, very few so far, onto Soundcloud. And, probably as a result of this movement in the creative nodes, I’ve noticed I want to start writing about this stuff again.

Last week, I asked my son to see if he could set up Dance Robot Dance with a new WordPress installation. How hard would that be? I figured quite. Alas, in five minutes, he had it done. So, there it is. No excuses. No delays (well, lots of delays, but of a different sort). And, unless that SQL stuff shows up one day, no history and a fresh new start to this. Whatever this is.

I don’t know exactly what this will be. As before, I plan to post sounds, and ideas, and pictures, and videos of blinky-lights. I hope you listen and read. I hope you participate in some way, too. Comments seem to be the default, here or on Soundcloud. I’d like to narrow my wide-open possibilities and start putting tracks together that have some cohesion, some coherence, and even “release” some new music on Bandcamp. Maybe get over my stage anxieties and play live somewhere. Maybe collaborate. Got any ideas?

I’ll leave you with these two things I just put on Soundcloud. They’re a couple of tracks I found an hour ago while clearing out part of a hard drive. Recorded in April, the sounds of the Hertz Donut mk3 VCO module, into what I believe sounds like the Strymon Volante delay.

Back soon.

Halls of Wonder and Decay

Once every year or two since I began playing guitar in 2011, I have these revelatory moments (literally, moments, and on them I must act) where I suddenly need to unload what I’d previously believed were Very Important guitar pedals (or synth modules) and replace them with something different. Almost always, the pedals that need replacing are some expensive device that maybe does amazing things, but just does too much of them and ends up eating away at the attention that other devices might deserve. It seems like this is always a Strymon thing. It’s happened twice with the Strymon Mobius. Once with the Timeline (which I’ve since bought another that I barely use). Definitely happened with the Big Sky, which I guess sounds nice, but good lord.

Last week it was the Strymon Blue Sky and the Flint that were suddenly causing offense, and I replaced them. They’re both fine guitar pedals. If I was stuck on a desert island with a guitar, a Flint, and an amp, I’d probably starve to death with a smile on my face. The harmonic setting on the Flint is spectacular and the trem and reverb interact very nicely. The Blue Sky I liked the first time I owned one (my first Reverb pedal) and I bought this one last year planning to keep it on my desk to use in the send/return bus of my synth mixer. But I just didn’t use it much. I’ve noticed a particular sound that is of the Blue Sky — maybe of Strymon reverb in general — and I’ve noticed that when I’m working with synths I’m either using the spring reverb module and tank on the modular synth, or plug-ins. Reverbs with more character and personality, like Goodhertz’s Megaverb. The Blue Sky had made its way down to the pedalboard again, and really, who needs two Strymon reverbs on their pedalboard? Not me.

So let’s talk about that pedalboard. Mine’s been a mess for some time. Cables and wires everywhere, all rather haphazard. I’m not a plug-it-in-and-leave-it kind of guy, and I like checking out new things and trying new arrangements. I also have more pedals than can fit on my Pedaltrain 3, so swap stuff in and out at times. I’m not going to stop doing any of that, but I decided to really give it some thought and consider how I might work with these issues and make a flexible, capable board. First things first, get rid of the two Strymons… (the third Strymon is an El Capistan which is probably my all-time favorite guitar pedal, so it’s not going anywhere. It occasionally gets temporarily swapped out with a Volante or an EHX SMMH/Hazarai, but not often).

I replaced the two Strymons with three Walruses and still saved money. First is the Walrus Monument tremolo, which has the harmonic trem that I loved so much on the Flint. Second is the Slö reverb which I want to use for creating pads before the loopers, and last is the more straightforward Fathoms reverb to sit at the end of everything, including after the Infinity. I’ve never had a reverb after the Infinity looper before and I’m curious how it affects what I’m doing.

I’m waiting on a custom loop switcher and some new patch cables in order to get everything down, and will make a longer post about this process then. But I’ve got most of it down and so far running quite nicely. Two nights ago I started playing around with the expression pedals controlling the speed of the El Capistan looper and the Count to 5, with a big Slö reverb behind them, and just hit record on the Infinity looper (wasn’t about to get up and turn on Ableton, hit record, etc). I took the results and added some stereo compression via Goodhertz Vulf Compressor, and posted them on Soundcloud. I listen to a lot of Califone instrumentals and William Basinski while I draw. This is good for that, too, I think. Please enjoy thanks.

dance robot dance · Halls of Wonder

Distancing, with distance

Do you ever record things, forget you recorded them, then find them on a hard drive and not have an idea how they were made, but man, they sound just right?

That happens to me often. Sometimes the sounds and phrases are scattered around, and sometimes at some point I’d actually formed them into something but I have little or no recollection of the doing so, nor the process I used to do so. Maybe this is a product of just getting older. More likely it’s because making music is for me a place where I like to just do, and I end up sometimes just not remembering that just doing, and when I get back to the things that I actually have to pay attention to, like writing and drawing books, spending time with family, whatever, the just did fades away.

I found an Ableton Live set the other day that I recorded a month ago with what is to me some of my favorite melodic stuff I’ve ever made on the modular synth. There is also some electric piano, some guitar, and a pretty decent Digitakt drum track.

This piece I’m posting here, called “Distancing,” is similar. I remember actually sitting at the desk, and I remember certain aspects of the process. I don’t remember recording the guitar at all, but my notes and the sound tells me it was my Fender Coronado, which has been my favorite guitar to record with in the year since I assembled it. The notes I refer to are those on Soundcloud that I luckily wrote the day after recording this:

Started out innocently enough: Some random Op-1 sounds in the key of C into the Volante SOS. Let it degrade some, freeze it and record it. I figured I’d just save the odd little rhythmic piece as a loop to use later. But before shutting it down, I unfroze the loop and started playing the minilogue against it while still recording. Let it fade out for several minutes as the “tape” degraded, and thought it might be done then, But then tried playing some guitar against the whole thing before turning out the lights last night and I like where it went(Fender Coronado through the Strymon Iridium into Ableton). Added some compression and some tapey effects to the guitar via Goodhertz Wow Control, and voila.

As with the guitar, I don’t recall anything about the OP-1 stuff, but okay, Soundcloud tells me that looped vocal thing at the beginning is an OP-1. I must have fiddled with that while recording into the Volante, looped, press record in Ableton, let it slowly degrade (God how I love the Strymon Volante and how it degrades loops. I like the El Capistan fine for this too, but the Volante is just velvet.) then in a stroke of genius (thank you I’ll take it) played that rough sine patch directly into the Volante as the background loop degraded and faded and where any mistake couldn’t be corrected later. (Yes, fine, key of C, and who screws that up anyway? Well, I do.) The inexplicable decision to go up an octave at 1:45 is to me, is the key to this track. Otherwise it would have merely repeated and faded. That gave me an anchor.

This piece is probably my favorite thing I’ve made in the past year or two. It’s one of the few things I actually keep on my regular playlist and just listen to at times, along with actual proper music that musicians made. I need to take a morning and try to organize and arrange it this Ableton set I found. Maybe similar miraculous discoveries are hidden in there. What’s that called, mixing? Yeah, I need to mix it.

just get it down

I’ve been working on recording a lot. Just getting things to sound good once they’re “printed” as it were. I feel like I’m getting there. A little bit of reverb. A little compression. Giving the master channel a little more oomph at the end with what is basically a mastering preset in Ableton. This is just the Fender Coronado through a Strymon Iridium in its Vox mode, and the Digitakt with the CR78 samples. More to come.

Digitakt meanders

I spent today working on (playing with? trying to learn?) the Digitakt. Made progress, enjoyed the experience, wrote down notes. Recorded some tracks.

The first one here, Organ, Rhythm, 65, picks up where the last post left off. That organ sample was still sitting there so I ran with it. Slowed the whole thing down to 65bpm. I really like the slow deliberate rhythm at that speed. Put the organ from that religious cardboard record on two tracks, one panned left, the other right. Randomized the loop start points, and pressed record.

The second track, Digitakt Voxrhythm, was the last thing I recorded today, just finally playing around with sampling directly to the machine. Two iterations of my voice, and some leftover stuff from the CR-78. This is fun.

The third track, Sequence, Delay, Warped, is me learning to use the MIDI tracks on the Digitakt sequencer. The sounds are from my modular synth. The Digitakt is sending notes and CV to the modular via the Expert Sleepers FH-2 (which is an amazing, couples device). The delay is the Mutable Instruments Warps, modulated with the Digitakt MIDI. I have a lot more of this stuff that I plan to edit sometimes in the next few days.

digitakt track

Got the Digitakt. Was completely overwhelmed for about four hours with all the menu diving and odd key combinations and ridiculous Elektron presets. Updated the firmware, read the manual, then erased everything. Started a new project, went about loading in a set of CR-78 samples and a few vocal oddities I’d taken from some old records over the years. Things got fun.

Yesterday afternoon, I loaded in a sampled organ from a strange old cardboard record I found in my father-law’s basement called Bernadette and the Beautiful Lady.

This record tells the story of Bernadette Soubirous of Lourde, who was visited by a vision of the Virgin Mary. The story is fantastic, the recording is goofy, but there’s a little organ number at the very end that is just lovely and made a nice looped drone on the Digitakt. I recorded a few runs with this, some with and some without using the Digitakt’s sequencer. I’m not sure which one made it here into the finished piece. I think it might be with the sequencer but with the start point randomized somewhat with an LFO. The sample is on two tracks, one panned hard left and the other right, differed lengths, and different start points. I believe one is reversed as well. This is fun stuff, and will make the Digitakt useful as much more than just a drum machine for me.

Here is the track, as well as pieces of the two samples.

The Beautiful Lady, organ at the end.
Digitakt rhythm all alone.

machine, drum

I’m getting a drum machine tomorrow. I feel like it’s Christmas Eve. This isn’t my first time down this drum machine path. Back in 2010-11 I had an Elektron Machinedrum, and it brought me great joy. I didn’t really know much about what I was doing, and I didn’t use it for much. I ended up selling it to fund my first electric guitar.

machinedrum and modular synth

The new one is a cousin of the Machinedrum: the Elektron Digitakt. While the Machinedrum was mostly a drum synth that had sampling kind of shoe-horned into it, the Digitakt is all sampling, all the time. The Digitakt isn’t new, and a quick search will allow one to watch hundreds and hundreds of hours of Digitakt videos. Which I have done, over the last three weeks, since I first realized how much I needed one. (Of course, I don’t need one.)

Drum machine rhythms have been in my head for the last several months, mostly alongside kind of slower ambient loops of electric piano and synths. The sounds of the old Roland CR-78 are what I normally hear, which began when I stumbled upon a couple of videos of Jonny Greenwood and Thom Yorke playing alongside a CR-78.

I suspect I’ll be posting a lot of drum machine/Digitakt content soon. Here’s a track I put together last night and this morning. A few electric piano loops from an El Capistan, and yes, a CR-78 (samples, using Ableton’s drum rack).